As governments work rapidly to respond to the Omicron variant, businesses experienced its effects as a timely reminder that flexibility is an essential part of any attempt to open offices again.
Even in a hybrid work environment, the unpredictable nature of the world and people's lives means that organizations will need workforce management methods and tools that are flexible and intelligent to make the transition a success.
As a result, it's as important now as ever to look at how data is the key to getting direction during these changing times – and how some of the data requirements that might seem burdensome can be a source of optimization.
Attitudes on workforce data are continuing to change with the times
The pandemic has already forced a sea-level change in how operations managers understand their workforce and workload and plan their operations.
While traditional workforce management data was based on looking around the office to get a sense of things and historical data around skills, schedules, inventory, and so forth, the pandemic left many operations managers in the dark as their teams worked remotely.
Many organizations had already adapted to this change, implementing new methods of understanding productivity and performance and managing employees that were effective when working from home.
As hybrid working becomes the norm, the question remains for managers, where are my people most productive? Working from home is the preferred option for many employees, but not all of them – and not all types of work can be adapted to remote working.
More recently, other layers have started to appear that present a challenge to operations managers. One layer is eligibility – as in, who is allowed to work in an office or not.
Of course, US organizations will still be feeling the effects of the government's attempt to enforce a nationwide vaccine mandate. Still, other countries are facing similar legislation – Western Europe is experiencing what can only be described as a 'COVID-19 reality check' when Austria became the first country to enforce a total lockdown since the vaccine rollout.
The news of a rising number of cases has led to drastic actions from Schallenberg, with the announcement that Austria will enact compulsory vaccinations in early 2022, which has sparked violence in Vienna as tens of thousands of people protest the measures.
While vaccinations have been the key to the UK's return to normality, nations that continue to struggle with controlling the virus will have an eye on Austria's vaccine mandate and consequently fear that it will be a sign of what's to come. With the ever-changing pandemic situation in Europe, businesses must prepare for the uncertainty.
If other Western European countries follow Austria's example, vaccination mandates will inevitably add a new and novel challenge for businesses. Across every industry, management teams are already feeling overwhelmed.
After two years of new COVID variants, new vaccines, and new restrictions on the workforce, Austria's mandate, as well as Biden's Executive Orders in the USA, exemplify a new risk to the growing stability that vaccinations gave us.
Some organizations are implementing their own mandates regardless of national policy – the upshot being that, as a result, operations managers now need to know who is allowed to work in a particular location at any given moment.
And of course, as the Omicron variant becomes more widespread and its effects are felt in society, organizations will need to rapidly adjust their plans to keep employees safe and comply with the law.
This can all feel very burdensome for operations managers: more data to gather, more lenses through which to look at workload, resources, and availability. But while there may be some initial pain associated with responding to these new requirements, I believe that they present an opportunity to create a more optimized future of work.
Investing in workforce data can make business life more manageable
Understanding comprehensive workforce data can make business life more manageable. Thereby, it's crucial to outline the four ways it contributes to a productive workplace:
1. It creates a well-balanced and engaged workforce
It's no secret that your employees will have preferences for where they work. Understanding those preferences and factoring that into your planning can help ensure your employees are engaged in their work, improving productivity, well-being, and retention.
If you can layer that information with data on employees' performance in different environments, you have another part of the picture to help you balance your workforce.
Of course, that data may need a third layer - who is eligible to work in which locations – and that needs to be handled correctly so that you comply with any local or national laws that are in force or will come into force.
2. It helps to reduce costs
This has already been discussed concerning the pandemic in a few places. As organizations move to hybrid working models, their need for office space reduces the costs associated with it. That could include rent, power, heating, water, insurance, and facilities.
But the cost argument goes beyond the maths of office space. Armed with the correct data, organizations can ensure their people are working where they are most productive and happiest. That can reduce costs, mainly in decreased absenteeism, costing thousands of pounds per year.
That reduced cost could be used to help balance the books in a tight year – or it could mean that funds are available for training and coaching programs that improve employee performance or even on rewarding high-performing employees.
3. It broadens the scope for your talent pool
Although gathering and analyzing more data might feel burdensome, the truth is it enables you to implement hybrid working models effectively and with confidence that they will deliver.
And that means that you gain all the benefits of a hybrid work environment – including a vastly expanded talent pool.
With minor roles a part of the norm, you can hire anyone from any country, allowing you to create more diverse and talented teams than you could before.
4. It can help make a positive contribution to sustainability efforts
Most organizations are considering reducing their carbon footprint and becoming more sustainable. If your organization uses data to support a hybrid workforce, you should see a reduction in emissions on multiple fronts.
You may see reduced emissions as fewer employees commute and those who commute less. You may see a reduced need for office lighting and heating – not to mention a reduction in office waste – as footfall in the office decreases.
The workforce data you gather to enable all this will help demonstrate a contribution to your organization’s emission reduction program – or could even form the basis of starting one if you haven't already.
In conclusion: Availability is the new eligibility
It's essential to start thinking about gathering data in a different light. Eligibility is arguably the most pressing (and stressing) requirement for organizations right now, and the temptation can be to find a solution that focuses solely on eligibility.
But to take a broader view, eligibility data isn't that different from the other data you're gathering about employees and where they can work. You're trying to build a picture of where your workforce is based – and eligibility is just one more layer on top of others, such as where your employees prefer to work and where they are most productive. When you consider the challenge in those terms, the uses for the data, you're gathering suddenly expand. We're calling the blanket term for this data "availability."
Of course, gathering availability data – and indeed all the workforce intelligence that makes the four things I've mentioned possible – is the trick. In a hybrid world, that data needs to be gathered automatically, wherever employees are based, in real-time, to give managers as much detail as possible. But at the same time, organizations need to find solutions to prevent managers from drowning in data, which will prevent them from getting on with their jobs.